Hennepin Co.: 'Staggering' number of inmates are opioid abusers

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek shares study of opioid use by inmates.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek discusses the results of a study of opioid drug use and abuse by jail inmates.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

One in five inmates at the Hennepin County jail last December self-reported a history of opioid use or abuse. That's according to a report released Tuesday by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

"The numbers are actually staggering," said Sheriff Rich Stanek. "Even more astonishing is the number of inmates who have overdosed."

Of the 173 inmates who reported a history of opioid use, 64 percent said they had overdosed. Of those who said they overdosed, 95 percent said they'd received a dose of naloxone — also known by its commercial name Narcan — which can revive people who over use opioid-based drugs like heroin.

"So, you think about that for a minute," said Stanek. "The record number of 175 opioid related deaths in Hennepin County would likely have been much higher, as many as maybe 105 higher had it not been for naloxone and Narcan and the use by public safety, doctors, nurses across Hennepin County."

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The data for the so-called snapshot of the jail population was collected by medical staff who interviewed all 851 inmates housed at the jail on Dec. 6.

Of those who identified as users, 52 percent said they used heroin exclusively. Nearly one-third said they only used prescribed opioids while 17 percent said they used a combination of heroin and prescription opioids. Only 18 inmates, 2 percent, reported receiving inpatient addiction treatment in the past.

Nearly everyone in the group of users were actively using the drugs at the time of incarceration, said Jason White, nurse manager at the jail.

Inmates now get counseling before they leave the jail; they also get two doses of naloxone and are trained how to use it, White added.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office was the first law enforcement agency in the state to equip officers with naloxone since a 2014 state law permitted it. Earlier this year, Minneapolis police began equipping officers with Narcan and training them on how to administer it. Police officials say they expect the entire force to be trained to use Narcan by the end of the year.

Stanek, who's been working with police and fire departments across the county to help them equip their own officers with naloxone, called opioid abuse the "deadliest drug epidemic in our nation's history" and one which can't be solved by locking up users.

"Jail has its place in society for those that need it," he said. "But for those who suffer from opioid overdose, or substance use and abuse, there's a different way to deal with them."

Law enforcement, however, is playing a significant role in the response to the epidemic. The number of overdose-related murder prosecutions in Minnesota is on the rise. In 2013, 14 murder charges were filed in connection with overdose deaths. By 2017, that number reached 22, an increase of 57 percent.

Earlier this year, a 31-year-old Plymouth woman, Courtney Ann Metcalfe, was charged with third-degree murder for allegedly supplying heroin to a woman who overdosed and died. Both women were inmates at the Hennepin County jail at the time. Prosecutors say Metcalfe smuggled the drugs into the jail.